Buy Your Groceries European-Style
Make a grocery list and stick to it? That's a piece of advice that'll cost you a lot of money. The theory, I guess, is that you're so terribly prone to impulse buying that you can't be trusted to wander free in a grocery store. The reality, though, is that you can save a lot of money if you can make yourself trustworthy.
I was actually taught to make a shopping list in school. I think it was part of the health curriculum — the same unit where we learned the four food groups. It came as part of a whole scheme that involved checking the grocery store ads, basing a menu around what was cheap, and then creating a shopping list for the week. It's an adequate shopping strategy, not so unreasonable for someone who works full time and can barely fit in a once-a-week trip to the grocery store. But it means that you're both paying more and missing out on the freshest, best-looking food.
I think of the alternative as "European-style" shopping, although it was perfectly ordinary in the United States as well, back in the days when people shopped at grocery stores, back before the invention of the supermarket. It still works fine, though, even in a supermarket.
When I'm buying groceries for the household, I shop almost every day. Instead of planning a menu in advance, I go to the store and look around to see what looks good. That way, I can get whatever's fresh and cheap.
Meat in particular gets marked down as it approaches its sell-by date. You can't do much with that sort of deal if you only shop once a week, because you won't want to be cooking meat a week after its sell-by date. However, since I'm going to cook it that same day, I'm perfectly happy buying something on its sell-by date — at which point it's often been marked down to a fraction of its regular price.
I rarely find such great deals in produce, but whatever's local and in-season is usually cheap, and there's no substitute for browsing in person for finding what looks best.
So, that's what I do. I may make a list to remind me of any regular items that I need to get, but then I look to see what looks good and what's cheap. Since I know I have a pantry full of staples, I'm confident that I can make a meal out of whatever I find. (I talk about those skills in Frugalize Any Recipe and Teach Yourself to Cook.)
It may seem like a lot of effort to go shopping every day, but it's actually a quick and easy trip. Since I'm only getting a few items, it doesn't take very long and I can do it on foot.
It's easy to do — in fact, you can even combine buying cheap and fresh food with weekly shopping (although you wouldn't want to stock up on meat close to its sell-by date). All you have to do is trust yourself to go for good deals on real food instead of making impulse buys of stuff you shouldn't be eating anyway — and then be worthy of that trust.